Hundreds turn out to dedicate new memorial by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · November 16, 2012
Despite a downpour, more than 260 people overflowed Town Hall for a dedication ceremony for a new veterans memorial, and most of those popped open umbrellas to stand in line for up to a half hour Sunday to see the unveiling and find names of friends and family on the wall. The Veterans Day dedication of Appreciation Park, between 109 and 111 East Main Street, drew more than project organizers Norm and Pat Bickford and Phyllis Sondergard imagined.
“We hoped for about 250, and that was the high end,” Pat Bickford said. “The turnout was great. We were so impressed and overwhelmed, even on a crappy day. It is so emotional.”
The 260 number was this reporter’s count from what he could see standing at the front of the room.
“It is beyond our wildest dreams,” Sondergard said of the turnout. “I’m very pleased.”
Mark Phillips drove from South Bend, Ind., to see his grandfather’s name among the 320 on the wall. Ray Phillips served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
“It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen,” he said of the memorial.
Mark Phillips is a son of John Phillips of West Branch, who served in the U.S. Marines in Vietnam. He thought the downtown location and the workmanship would draw many to stop by.
“It would be a nice place on a nice summer day” to stop, he said. “It’s beautiful. … and peaceful.”
Paul Sexton of West Branch, served in the U.S. Army in the Korean Conflict. He pointed to the large memorial plaque on the wall inside Town Hall, saying “I thought the old one was pretty good.”
“The new one is pretty nice,” he said.
Sexton said it was a “nice gesture” by the Bickfords and Sondergard to erect a new memorial and open it up to anyone who has served. One day, he said, he hopes to see his grandson, David Musser of West Branch, have his name placed on the wall for his time in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iowa National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Keeler said the trio made a “huge effort” to build and pay for the memorial.
“It came out exactly as what they said,” he said, noting that he has driven by for three months to watch the building phases. “My son, Logan — there is not a day he will not want to stop and touch the wall.”
Keeler’s father, Steve, attained the same rank in the Guard and the younger Keeler remembers being in school when his father was deployed to the Gulf War.
“As more time goes by, (the memorial) will help us not lose track of those who served, and the next generation,” Brandon Keeler said. “It is an outstanding addition to our downtown.”
During the ceremony, Master of Ceremonies Stephen Grace and Mayor Don Kessler thanked the Bickfords and Sondergard for leading the effort to build the memorial. Members of American Legion Chauncey Butler Post 514 presented them with flowers and Norm Bickford even got emotional as the three were called before the wall-to-wall crowd and received a standing ovation.
Retired Rev. Richard Paulus led the crowd in a benediction, saying “West Branch now has truly expressed its appreciation for the hundreds who have served.” He also prayed for service members past, present and future.
Keynote speaker Sgt. Major Duane Strong of the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois said he felt “blessed” to be asked to speak.
He appealed the crowd, asking them to support all veterans and their families.
“We can’t do this alone,” he said. “It takes profound strength to wear this uniform. Once a soldier, always a soldier.”
Strong said veterans have taken advantage of the G.I. Bill, the recent Hero To Hire Act and other services available to them, but they still need and deserve a grateful community.
“It is our sacred duty to remind them of our support,” he said.
He asked veterans in the crowd to stand, and dozens rose to loud applause.
The West Branch Boys Choir sang patriotic songs, the Boy Scouts and Legion presented the colors — both during the ceremony and at the unveiling of the wall — and the Girl Scouts served refreshments.
Mayor Kessler also thanked Theresa Simon-Lee (formerly Seeberger) for donating part of the land on which the memorial now stands.
The ceremony ended with the crowd rising to the playing of Taps.
Space is still available to add names to the memorial wall of Appreciation Park. Those who wish to do so may call Pat Bickford at 319-541-0829. Those who wish to donate to Appreciation Park may contact West Branch Veterans Memorial, 5732 350th St. NE, West Branch, Iowa, 52358.